Monday, February 6, 2017

"The Highwaymen" at History Theatre and "The Whipping Man" Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company

Yesterday, when most of the world was watching some sporting event on TV, I saw two plays in St. Paul that spoke to the African American experience. When I sat down to write about one or the other today, I found that I couldn't separate the two. Maybe it's just because I saw them on the same day, but it seems like the two plays really speak to each other. History Theatre's world premiere of The Highwaymen and Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production of The Whipping Man ("one of the most widely produced new American plays of the last several seasons") essentially tell the same story, 90 years apart, one in St. Paul, Minnesota and one in Richmond, Virginia. A story that continues to occur today in cities and small towns across the country. A story of black people being sent to the whipping man, of being sold South, of having their homes bulldozed to make way for "progress," of being imprisoned at a disproportional rate, of being denied education, of being shot by the police for walking down the wrong street. Both of these plays are really excellent productions, not always easy to watch, that shed light on one of the most important issues of our time.

The Highwaymen at History Theatre
Playwrights' Center affiliated writer Josh Wilder submitted an idea for a play to the History Theatre, about the building of Interstate Highway 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul, that displaced hundreds of families and businesses in the self-sustaining black neighborhood known as Rondo. In its commitment to tell the stories of all Minnesotans, the History Theatre said yes. The Highwaymen has come a long way since the Raw Stages festival two years ago (when it was already compelling), and is now a full and complete story in just 90 minutes, a story of the fast march of progress and who pays for it.

James Detmar, Kevin D. West, Peter Thomson, and
E.J Subkoviak (photo by Scott Pakudaitis)
The play give us a glimpse into two worlds (beautifully represented by Wrara Plesoiu's ingenious set design, with the two locations on opposite sides of a wall on the revolving stage). In the opulent city hall, the white men meet to make the decisions about where the highway should go -  soon-to-be Deputy Commissioner of Highways Frank Marzitelli (E.J. Subkoviak), St. Paul chief civil engineer George Shepard (James Detmar), and retiring St. Paul city planner George Herrold (Peter Thomson). On the other side of the wall is a colorful and homey barbershop, run by Timothy Howard (Kevin D. West) who, along with the Reverend Floyd Massey (Rex Isom Jr.), attempts to advocate for the people of Rondo in the city planning. But in the end protests and alternate proposals are not enough, because the black men (or women of any color) are not in the room where it happens, the room where the decisions get made.

Director Jamil Jude smartly utilizes all parts of the theater so that the time it takes for the stage to rotate from one setting to the other is unnoticeable, and he gets great performances out of this excellent cast (which also includes Darrick Mosley in the one non-historical character, a janitor named CJ), who do a fantastic job of bringing this story and these complex characters to life. The end of the play is particularly powerful, with audio and video examples of how the story of Rondo has continued to play out.

The Whipping Man by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center
From St. Paul in 1956 to Richmond in 1865 - same show, different channel. The Civil War has just ended, freeing the slaves, but Simon (Warren C. Bowles) is waiting in the war-destroyed DeLeon family home for his former master to return and give him the money he promised him upon winning his freedom. The master's son Caleb (Riley O'Toole) returns from the war, injured and under suspicious circumstances. Former slave John (JuCoby Johnson) also returns to the home he grew up in, also under suspicious circumstances. The story plays out on Michael Hoover's realistic set of shabby southern home, far removed from its former glory.

Warren C. Bowles, Riley O'Toole, and JuCoby Johnson
(photo by Sarah Whiting Photography)
In a new twist to the Civil War drama, the DeLeon family is Jewish, as are their slaves. The three men come together to celebrate the Seder meal (which commemorates the freeing of slaves in ancient Egypt), and discuss their shared faith and complicated family history. Caleb and Simon insist that the DeLeons are "good" slave-owners, they treated their slaves well and only whipped them when absolutely necessary, but John insists that a slave is still a slave. Caleb and John grew up together and were close as brothers, until Caleb realized that he owned John. Caleb is in love with Simon's daughter Sara, but what kind of love is that if he also owns her?

The play beautifully and painfully illustrates the intricacies of the slave/master relationship, one that has had and continues to have lasting effects on our country (see above). This is another incredible cast that makes you feel every one of their intense emotions, and you would never know that this is TC theater veteran Sally Wingert's directing debut, so all around wonderful is this production.

We're only 150 years past slavery, which isn't very long in the course of human history. Slavery was a seriously messed up and incredibly complicated system, so it's no wonder we're still pretty messed up 150 years later. And just because we Minnesotans live north of the Mason-Dixon line doesn't mean racism hasn't happened and doesn't continue to happen here. To paraphrase a line in The Highwaymen, the racism of the North (e.g., Rondo) is the same as the racism of the South (e.g., slavery), it just looks different, with a nicer face. Racism is so ingrained in us and our country, in ways we don't even realize. We need a complete paradigm shift. I don't know how that's going to happen, but I do know that knowing our history, not just facts and figures but how human lives were affected, and making and supporting theater that gives voice to the voiceless and engenders empathy and understanding across cultures can only help. Both of these plays are powerful examples of that, and the casts and creative teams have done well by the stories they're telling.

The Highwaymen and The Whipping Man both continue through February 26. Please see one or both of these plays, remember our history, open your ears, mind, and heart, have a conversation, and help us do better than we've done in the past and attempt to remedy the wrongs that have been done. As Timothy Howard reminds us, "keep your eyes open!"